Have mainstream political parties failed?


Increased levels of racism, outbursts of xenophobia and a rise in the number of terror attacks perpetrated by individuals in some countries; a surge in populist movements across Europe asking for one race policies in even more; a seemingly widening gap between elected office holders and their electorates in others – is our pluralistic system based on competing political parties in need of a facelift?

Can we detect cracks in what was supposed to be a rather harmonious approach to policy making in most European states? Are the far right and perhaps even a new far left on the up for good -- and if so why -- and can this trend be reversed?

I wish to discuss two issues in this contribution. First, could it be that an ever growing number of (European) voters because of what they perceive as a blurred “one size fits all” approach to policy making are moving away from -- politically speaking -- safe territory and beginning to search for more outspoken, more recognizable -- yet in the worst case -- more extreme political actors? Second, do what we commonly refer to as “People’s Parties” continue to adequately safeguard democracy, and linked to that first observation, are they able to ward off extremism and xenophobia?

What actually is a People’s Party?

Many present day political parties officially categorize themselves as “People’s Parties.” The term usually refers to a party that wants to portray itself as representing a broader spectrum of society as opposed to simply being seen as Left or Right.

The origin of the term is often linked to post-war West Germany where over time both Social Democrats and Christian Democrats had begun to describe themselves as “Volkspartei;” a not necessarily 100 percent accurate translation of the English language term “People’s Party,” with “Volk” as a point of reference for a nation state’s population.

When political parties begin to refer to themselves as People’s Parties this often mirrors the existence of a powerful middle class and the less partisan nature of the electorate. Except for the core members and activists, a political party working according to the People’s Party model will need to appeal to almost all segments of a given society and not just for example to Trade Union members (Socialist parties) on the one hand or employers on the other hand (Conservative parties). The more radical split-ideology concept of having a working class “Left” political party and a “Right” party representing more affluent segments of society begins to fade, starts to become blurred. What’s more, elections are more often than not decided by swing voters who at one election cast their ballot for one party and tick the box of another party four years later.

On the plus side, one might argue that political parties who appeal to a cross section of society help to reduce polarization and contribute to a more conciliatory approach to policy making. On the minus side, we must acknowledge that when almost all policy making matters are dealt with by “interchangeable” politicians – “interchangeable” used in the sense that except for a few key issues many policies as proposed by either People’s Party (assuming that there are at least two) are more or less identical – those voters who prefer a more clear-cut alternative often resort to more extreme fringe parties or disappear from the political classes’ radar altogether.

With regard to a consensus based set of policies -- and if policy suggestions are more or less the same when compared between two competing people’s parties -- over time larger groups within society may begin to feel alienated from mainstream politicians and parties; we detect a serious fault line. In this context and on a still rather “harmless” level I refer to a more traditional segment of society often categorized as the “from the cradle to the grave” type. By saying this I mean “once a trade unionist, always a trade unionist,” or “once a Conservative, always a Conservative.” If these members of the electorate feel unhappy about their “logical” choice of political party they will not take up arms; they will drop their voter registration card and stay at home on Election Day instead.

Another part of the electorate is a much smaller segment that made an altogether different choice and became members or voters of more radical movements and political parties. This includes far-left as well as far-right movements. Often not making it into a national parliament by insufficient results at the ballot box and/or a high election threshold, chances are that some of those voters as well as the representatives of those political movements became verbally more aggressive.

When ultimately even these fringe parties stop to act as a verbal ventilator (and thus pacifier) for more radically inclined people and the moment a minority within the minority disappears even from those parties’ radar (having disappeared from the more established political classes’ radar already), individuals may not only become verbally aggressive but turn to violence. Examples are torching cars of no-matter-whom, throwing bricks into an immigrant’s shop or vandalizing graveyards of people of a different religion. Some may attack individual politicians; other’s their entire youth movements. Should those extremists be re-integrated into society? A tricky question – where to draw the line? Is “looting” extremism or simply a crime? Was the attack on a US congresswoman political extremism or attempted murder, or both? What about former terrorists who hand in their weapons? What about the often wrong argument that “crimes are perpetrated mostly by immigrants?”

People’s Parties fall into the populist trap?

And what about those who are prone to listen to more “outspoken” yet “peaceful” politicians: one politician who is most definitely outspoken is France’s Marine Le Pen. Charles Grant, director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, recently wrote about “Marine Le Pen and the rise of populism.” In his analysis he quoted the leader of France’s Front National as having said: “Left and right don’t mean anything anymore – both left and right are for the EU, the euro, free trade and immigration. … For 30 years, left and right have been the same; the real fracture is now between those who support globalization and nationalists.’

If Grant’s analysis incorporating Le Pen’s ideology is more than a snapshot of just one country -- think far right anti-immigration sentiments in other states, a growing skepticism vis-à-vis the EU’s economic abilities (and in turn even about the viability of the entire “Project EU” as such in many more) and the shocking revelations about the motives behind the Oslo and Utoeya gunman, Le Pen’s populism and what other far right and far left activists propose no longer appears to be a harmless, loose network of individual policies. Taken together and molded into a “serious ideology” and proposed by mainstream turned populist, as well as far right turned populist political parties, respectively, they would ask to turn back the clock to a system of separate nation states totally unconnected, would ask for physical borders to re-emerge in order to stop immigration and would base their policies on a general understanding that both Europeanization and globalization are bad. What’s more, this form of economic populism carries the imminent risk of turning into the belief that one race only societies are best.

All doom and gloom?

No. To answer my two questions mentioned at the beginning of this article: People’s Parties are not beyond their sell-by date. Politicians must learn how to listen better to their electorate and above all must learn how to explain their policies in laymen’s terms to stop the widening gap between the people and elected office holders. What’s more, citizens are not born disenfranchised from the political system – they become disconnected! Whereas fringe parties up to a certain extent do have a ventilator effect as mentioned above (so had rock music for past generations, including the aficionados of flower power) they should not be mistaken as a credible alternative to mainstream, People’s Parties. Flirting with new ideas and alternative forms of how to live in a modern society are OK, using violence as means of expression is not. People’s Parties should promote both statements.